August 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Chat's next wave

(Page 2 of 2)

With the number of consumers browsing the retailer's site on a mobile device rising, the retailer a few months ago trained a portion of its nearly 900 chat agents to focus on mobile chatting. Mobile chatters have unique needs—mainly because they are working with smaller screens—which is why the retailer trains its agents to craft shorter, pithier responses when interacting with mobile consumers.

Like minds

Live chat is all about meeting consumers' needs, says The E-tailing Group's Freedman. And that requires agents to be armed with information.

For some retailers, like athletic apparel, footwear and accessories manufacturer Under Armour Inc., it helps when agents understand its products because they have used them, not just learned about them in training. When shoppers chat with the UnderArmour.com agents on product pages they're chatting with actual fans and users of Under Armour gear.

That concept of finding enthusiast-agents came from Under Armour's live chat provider, Needle Inc. The vendor works with Under Armour to find prospective agents from among the brand's more than 1.7 million Facebook fans—and elsewhere, such as friends of its agents—who can answer shoppers' questions via online chat. Those agents, who can work from anywhere with an web connection, receive an hourly wage. They can also earn points when they meet certain goals, such as a consumer rating the agent as excellent in a satisfaction survey. They can then use those points to purchase merchandise.

A deep understanding of the manufacturer's products is particularly important because the brand has an array of similar-sounding products. If a man shopping on the site wants to buy a long-sleeved mock turtleneck, for instance, he has nine options, many of which have similar names like "Men's ColdGear Longsleeve Compression Mock," "Men's ColdGear Fitted Longsleeve Mock" and "Men's UA Gameday ColdGear Longsleeve Compression Mock." With so many choices Under Armour's customers occasionally need a helping hand, says Dave Demsky, the retailer's vice president of e-commerce operations.

"We want our customers to actually understand how the products feel," he says. Having chat agents who use the brand's products gives them that knowledge. "We have a police officer who wears a compression shirt under his bulletproof vest all winter so he can speak to the comfort of wearing something under his uniform," Demsky says. "Regardless of whether the customer is a police officer or runner, the agent can tell him how the product actually works."

Needle's agents handle chats initiated on the retailer's product pages, where consumers typically have product-related questions. The retailer has in-house agents who use Oracle Corp.'s RightNow contact center software to respond to customer service-related queries initiated via chat on other pages. The retailer pays Needle's agents $10 an hour plus the cost of the merchandise the agents acquire via points, which is about the same as its in-house staff are paid. But having brand advocates as its chat agents gives consumers a better sense of what it is like to wear its products.

That perspective helps explain why 27% of shoppers who chat on UnderArmour.com's product pages make a purchase within 24 hours. Those agents also are trained to inform consumers about other products that meet their needs, such as a pair of specialized socks for running in hot weather. Those types of upsells help boost the average order value for consumers who chat with Needle agents $15 higher than that of other customers, Demsky says. Internet Retailer estimates that the average order value on the site is $70, which means that the average order value jumps about 21%.

For e-commerce sites, good customer service is crucial. As live chat is increasingly where consumers turn to receive that service, retailers need to make sure that their agents are ready and able to help. That requires some technology investment, and also agents armed with the knowledge that lets them meet consumers' needs.

zak@verticalwebmedia.com

@ZakStamborIR

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